Thursday, May 18, 2000

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1987 Helderberg crash: new leads being probed

PRETORIA -- The Civil Aviation Authority yesterday confirmed it was investigating new evidence that there was a "deadly cargo" on board South African Airways' Helderberg aircraft which crashed into the Indian Ocean in 1987, killing all 159 people aboard.

The authority had not yet established whether that could indeed be heard on the technologically enhanced cockpit voice recording of the Helderberg, CAA chief executive officer Trevor Abrahams said at a news conference here.

Neels van Wyk, who was involved with the investigation of the disaster and now lives in the United States, sent the CAA a transcript of the enhanced recording, Abrahams said.

Van Wyk also sent copies to some South African media.

A large part of the original recording was inaudible. Van Wyk gave a copy of that to the Forensic Audio Laboratory (FAL) in the United States. The FAL managed to enhance part of the previously inaudible recording.

According to that, Captain Dawie Uys informed his crew that a "deadly cargo" was being transported in the back of the plane, Beeld reported yesterday.

Abrahams said Van Wyk had referred the CAA to the producers of the M-Net programme Carte Blanche who had an audio copy of the enhanced recording.

However, neither the CAA nor Carte Blanche had yet been able to corroborate the recording with the transcript.

Whenever new evidence emerged about an accident, the CAA was obliged to consider it, Abrahams said.

The CAA's first task would be to establish whether the recording had been correctly transcribed and whether it was authentic, he said.

The Helderberg, a Boeing 747 Combi, crashed into the Indian Ocean about 160km northeast of Mauritius on November 28, 1987.

A three-year inquiry led by Judge Cecil Margo found that nobody was to blame for the crash.

In 1998 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings behind closed doors about the disaster.

Dr David Klatzow, a prominent forensic expert who researched the cause of the crash, has claimed that the Helderberg carried ammonia perchlorate, a highly unstable additive used to make rocket fuel.

This would be used to make arms that matched the advanced Russian weaponry being used against it in Angola at the time. Sanctions made it impossible for South Africa to import the arms, Klatzow has claimed.

His testimony to the TRC also set out to prove that there were two fires on board the Helderberg. The first started an hour after it took off from Taipei. This fire was put out, but the pilot was ordered to break the golden rule of landing at the nearest airport, to prevent a foreign country discovering the chemicals on board.

When the second fire broke out the plane went down, Klatzow said.

In its report on the matter, the TRC said that during the initial investigation the director of Civil Aviation (the predecessor of the CAA) neglected to secure all documentation and recordings as required by the Flight Engineers' Association regulations.

The TRC found that nothing in the cargo inventory could have resulted in a "self-promoted" fire.

"However, the original cargo manifests were not part of the record of the Margo Commission, and it is uncertain whether those in the possession of the commission are authentic.

"There is therefore no reliable list of what cargo was being transported by the Helderberg when it crashed.

"It was suggested that Armscor may have had a goods consignment on the Helderberg that could have been responsible for causing the fire," the report said.

"Interviews with SAA pilots indicated that there was a belief among pilots that passenger flights were frequently used to transport armaments and components for Armscor," the TRC said. -- Sapa

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